Track the Trend: Underwater Love – Fred Butler and Victorian Aquariums

Chanel S/S 12 catwalk from Fashion Editor at Large

In civilisations without boats, dreams dry up, espionage takes the place of adventure, and the police take the place of pirates.   –   Michel Foucault

As I do love a good theme, I thought I’d take this opportunity to send my recent mermaid post into even murkier waters. It can’t be denied that something fishy is afoot in the world of fashion. Chanel took the house’s long-established pearl-obsession back to its aquatic origin and staged their whole S/S 2012 collection in a set resembling Ariel’s playground (complete with a modern day Ariel in the form of Florence Welch). Lagerfeld played the part of Prospero according to style.com, creating his own underwater kingdom (maybe Poseidon would have been more apt), and pearls, famously adored by Coco herself, were found strewn through the models’ hair and at their waists, while mother-of-pearl iridescence glistened through fabrics and on seaweed-like ruffles. Philip Colbert of Rodnik fused his own obsession with Surrealism with the British love of fish and chips, and the Versace collection was soaked in briny bling from golden starfish to shiny seahorses and shells. Mary Katrantzou’s signature prints were like peering through the concave perspex walls of a Sea Life Centre, while Iris van Herpen’s dress-creatures were inspired by 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. 

Mary Kantrazou S/S 2012

Chanel S/S 2012

Versace S/S 2012

One of the freshest takes on underwater inspiration came from prop maker, blogger and designer Fred Butler, whose presentation at Somerset House for S/S 12 was her first on-schedule show. Hosted by Susie Bubble of Stylebubble fame, Fred’s collection (the tongue twister that is ‘Sonic Sinuate Supertemporal Sequestador’) used her signature psychedelic use of colour, shape and texture to create a very pleasing fashion cacophony, inspired by the ‘forms and fluid movements of aquatic creatures that shed their outer shell to reveal spectacular fluorescent bodies’. In keeping with the fashion synesthesia that is associated with Fred’s impressive output, an original four-part sound installation accompanied the presentation, created by friend and collaborator Patrick Wolf. Fred is incredibly vocal about the many ways that music inspires her work, so it was fitting that the presentation was a multisensory experience and certainly didn’t follow a linear path – the music was created to sound different depending on where you were in the room, thus creating a dialogue with the clothing itself. The shapes were more organic than her usual geometric silhouettes, a factor that’s also evident in the amazing shoes by Rosy Nicholas.

I was lucky enough to speak to Fred to ask her a few questions about her underwater influences.

Which underwater creatures were you inspired by for your SS 12 collection?
I looked at a certain sea slug as a starting point for colours and patterns to prompt the mark-making in my hand painted fabrics. I wanted it all quite soft and fluid like the way they swim and glide along. Their bodies are frilly in the same way I was already developing ruffles and concertina seams. The whole thing all came together perfectly as a theme! I then collaborated with Rosy Nicholas on the shoes, showing her my initial experiments. She came back with a barnacle technique that was similar to my own sequining which was a magic addition as the final touch to the collection.

Where did you come across these creatures?
At the beginning of each season I have a visual in my mind’s eye that I have to extract and put down on paper. It’s a blur of shape and hue which comes from nowhere and I try to find a physical tactile process to pull it out of my imagination. I have become friends with the photographer Jason Evans because we have a very similar appreciation for a particular aesthetic. One day he showed me a book of nature photography totally dedicated to these Japanese creatures and it was exactly what I had been thinking about. Not only is their camouflage an embodiment of the colour palette I was visualising, but even the shape of their antennae is identical to a Samurai hat I had been looking at.  

Right: Fred with illustrator Julie Verhoeven

What is it about underwater life that you think fascinates people?
We rarely get to see or experience it first hand, so it is a little like outer space – especially the phosphorescent neon species in the darker depths.  It’s phenomenal that a second world exists on this planet and the majority of it is unbelievably exquisite and beautiful.

I’ve long been interested in our relationship with the sea and its depths. It has been mythologised within British culture, art and science for centuries. For an island nation, the sea, and all who traverse it, hold the key to economic and geographic expansion, scientific discovery, and even military triumph. This climaxed in the Victorian period when imperial expansion reached its zenith; the sea came to be a potent symbol within painting, poetry and visual culture representing a vast spectrum of ideas.

From the original 1870 woodcut from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea; Colossal Octopus by Denys de Montfort (1805); From original 1870 woodcut from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea all found at The Artificial Kingdom: A Treasury of the Kitsch Experience
Iris Van Herpen A/W 2012 featured scales, glowing jellyfish and coral, and was inspired by 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The Cathedral Dress (right) is made of 3D-printed wood.
Ernst Haeckel, Art Forms in Nature; French postcard (1908) found in The Artificial Kingdom: A Treasury of the Kitsch Experience; Ernst Haeckel, Art Forms in Nature

Throughout the nineteenth century the ocean was commercialised and commodified through prints and paintings, objets d’art such as decorative ‘scientific’ texts on the nature of the ocean and her inhabitants which, in turn, led to the craze for monster-spotting, the interest in domestic and public aquariums, and shell collecting. To the Victorian mindset the ocean represented not only such obvious binaries as home/abroad or safety/danger, but with the expansion of seaside resorts, imperialism and growing consumption patterns, it became increasingly aligned with issues such as nationality and Empire, pleasure and health, naval superiority and conquest, and significantly, with the spectacle and display involved in the construction and continuation of fashionable lifestyles. As such, ‘the sea’ became intrinsic to conceptions of modernity and progress for Victorian society.

Frontispiece from La Conchyliologie (1757), a celebration of the passion for shells found at The Artificial Kingdom: A Treasury of the Kitsch Experience; Ernst Haeckel, Art Forms in Nature; Coral Cabinet (1706) found at The Artificial Kingdom: A Treasury of the Kitsch Experience

4.6 million shells line the walls of Margate’s mysterious shell grotto. No one knows why it was built or its exact age.
Vogue covers: July 1933 by Eduardo Garcia Benito found here; August 1937; 1931 by Georges Lepape from The Art of Vogue Covers 1909 – 1940 by William Packer
Our Broken Hearts for Paperself eyelashes inspired by underwater treasure

The 19th century obsession with categorisation and classification saw a fad for domestic aquariums emerge. A tax on glass was repealed in 1845 which enabled middle class consumers to indulge their interest in marine biology from the comfort of their drawing rooms, encouraged by the Great Exhibition of 1851 which displayed an inordinate amount of aquariums mounted in ornate cast iron frames. Now a staple of fairgrounds, the humble goldfish was highly sought after, and was imported especially from Japan.

Ernst Haeckel, Art Forms in Nature; Plumose Anemone from Philip H. Gosse, The Aquarium found in The Artificial Kingdom: A Treasury of the Kitsch Experience; Ernst Haeckel, Art Forms in Nature
Coco’s pearl obsession: Chanel by Man Ray found here, sailor Chanel found here

Advances in technology also enabled the ocean floor to be investigated for the first time as fully submersible crafts were developed, piquing interest in the murky depths of the ocean. Biologist Philip Henry Gosse published his book The Aquarium: An Unveiling of the Wonders of the Deep Sea in 1854, and Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) coupled with Jules Verne’s hit 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1870) meant that oceanic nature was never far from public consciousness.

The first aquarium hobby magazine, published in Cincinnati in 1878; Brighton aquarium – the first of the ‘Aquarium Palaces’ opened in 1872 (both from The Artificial Kingdom: A Treasury of the Kitsch Experience); Mr Punch’s Designs After Nature
Taken at the London Aquarium, April 2012

The first public aquarium was opened at Regent’s Park Zoological Gardens 1853, and just under two decades later in 1872 Brighton opened the first of the ‘aquarium palaces’ – originally called ‘aquavivariums’ – and it remained the largest aquarium in Europe for many years.

The Life Aquatic: Thanks to Bill Murray and Wes Anderson you really can work leopard print into the most unlikely trend
Jacques Cousteau on the cover of Time, 1960; detail of a chest embellished with mother-of-pearl intarsia in the form if the jellyfish Desmonema annasethe found in Art Forms in Nature

For those who are keen to play down this trend (although why you would is beyond me), you can check out Jess Cartner-Morley’s guide at The Guardian for a subtler take using repeat shell prints on silk. Whatever floats your boat I suppose. But for those who aren’t afraid to plunge right in, I would suggest hunting down some museum-quality Schiaparelli, adorning your house with jellyfish chandeliers and stocking up on some wearable art from Rodnik.

Glass chandelier from the Oceanographic Museum in Monaco, modelled after an Ernst Haeckel drawing found in Art Forms in Nature; Schiaparelli’s Lobster Dress
Rodnik

About Amber Jane

Amber Butchart is a fashion historian on a quest to reveal the secrets of our sartorial past and place the semiotics of style in a wider cultural, political and social sphere. She has contributed to productions for BBC 1 & 2, BBC Learning, Radio 4, Channel 4 and Sky Arts, from Making History and Woman’s Hour to Great British Sewing Bee, and she presents a regular ‘In Conversation’ series at the V&A museum looking at issues concerning the clothed body in fashion and performance. She is an Associate Lecturer in Cultural & Historical Studies at London College of Fashion, where she lectures across a number of areas concerning fashion, the body and contemporary culture, from the impact of blogging on fashion media to fashion and the grotesque. Shot by Vogue as a girl with great British style, her interest in antique clothing was ignited by working as Head Buyer for vintage clothing company Beyond Retro, and for 5 years she was a regular contributor to leading trend analysis company WGSN. As the red-haired half of the Sony-nominated Broken Hearts DJ duo she co-hosts a weekly radio show on Jazz FM focussing on swing music, with an emphasis on rediscovering forgotten women of the Jazz Age; and as live DJs they have graced stages across the globe for the likes of Marc Jacobs, Vivienne Westwood and Louis Vuitton. A former Research Fellow at the University of the Arts London, Amber has spoken at the Institute for Contemporary Arts, British Museum, Royal Academy, British Library, Wellcome Collection, British Film Institute, and is a regular on the SHOWstudio fashion week panels. She is a member of the Royal Historical Society and the Association of Dress Historians and her book Nautical Chic: a history of high fashion on the high seas, is forthcoming in 2015 published by Thames & Hudson. Amber Jane Butchart's Fashion Miscellany, her compilation of vestimentary oddities, is out now.
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3 Responses to Track the Trend: Underwater Love – Fred Butler and Victorian Aquariums

  1. Pingback: Style Cycles: British Seaside | Theatre of Fashion

  2. Such a thorough article, the only thing that’s missing is the rise of SeaPunk.

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